Paul Wilner, Special to The Chronicle
Saturday, September 20, 2008
The Letters of Allen Ginsberg
Edited by Bill Morgan
Da Capo; 468 pages; $30
Allen Ginsberg was a hawk. In an unpublished letter written to the
New York Times in 1942, when he was a precocious 15-year-old, he
defended American involvement in World War II, asserting: "We are not
fighting, in the long run, because of Pearl Harbor. ... We are
fighting because we are fighting Fascism: we are fighting Fascism,
not just because of what it does to us but because of what it is."
Ginsberg's political views evolved over the years, of course, but he
never lost his trademark progressivism, sincerity or bedrock belief
that he could convince others of the merits of his cause if he only
managed to express his ideas passionately and effectively enough.
This wonderfully rich collection of 165 letters from the 1940s until
the poet's death in 1997, put together by his longtime archivist,
Bill Morgan, gives us a firsthand view of the man behind the poems,
someone of whom it can be truly said that the personal was political.
Here's Ginsberg corresponding with his Columbia professor and
sometime literary nemesis Lionel Trilling, with his customary air of
ingratiation and insouciance: "Thank you for your criticism of the
poem. ... I must admit that it pleased me to read all those nice
things you wrote about it, but to tell the truth I have only a hazy
idea of what you mean by 'the voice and its tone,' which you admire
As he got revved up, and the publication of "Howl" in 1956 changed
the literary landscape forever, he intensified his epistolary warfare
with academic inferiors like Richard Eberhart and John Hollander.
"You heard or saw Howl as a negative howl of protest," he tells
Eberhart, chidingly. "The title notwithstanding, the poem itself is
an act of sympathy, not rejection. In it I am leaping out of a
preconceived notion of social 'values,' following my own heart's instincts."
And he disgustedly gets back to his Columbia classmate Hollander for
bashing the Beats: "It's just that I've tried to do too much
explaining and get overwhelmed by the vastness of the task, and
sometimes what seems to be all the accumulated ill-will and evil
vibrations in America."
Ever the Whitmanesque ball of contradictions, Ginsberg maintained a
running, rapid-fire commentary against capitalism and its excesses,
from the Eisenhower era to the Cuban missile crisis and beyond, even
as he ruefully recounted his expulsion from Cuba and Czechoslovakia
because of his sexual predilections, interest in illegal substances
and incorrigibly anti-totalitarian instincts.
While maintaining an ongoing rhetorical volley against the foolish
oppressiveness of the "war on drugs," he sternly lectures old Beat
buddies like Herbert Huncke to clean up their act while visiting his
Cherry Valley farm in upstate New York. "[Y]ou're welcome to home
here, but no needle drugs and no needles on the premises," he writes
in 1968, his tolerance clearly having reached its limits. "I'm
leaving this explicit here, including the flat statement that I won't
hesitate to search if I'm being double-crossed on the matter."
There is more - much more - about Ginsberg as a public and private
figure here. Heartbreakingly masochistic (and angry) letters to Neal
Cassady. Beseeching laments to his lover Peter Orlovsky about his
drug and alcohol abuse (along with an insanely typical suggestion
that he pay a visit to Dame Edith Sitwell). Overwrought broadsides to
Jack Kerouac, which mirror Kerouac's own style too closely.
Reprimands to perennial bad boy Gregory Corso, whose own wonderful
(and forgotten, of course) collection of letters, "An Accidental
Biography" (New Directions, 2003), also edited by Morgan, should
probably be read in concert with those of his more successful friend.
It's no disrespect to Ginsberg's unique achievement as a poet to say
that his work declined in later years, as he became distracted by his
fame, failing health and seemingly incurable desire to save the world.
But this remarkable collection by someone who perhaps invented the
concept of "oversharing" long before it became fashionable, reminds
us of why he mattered then, and still does now. Amid a life of
courted controversy, his humanity always shone through. While
conducting a fierce dispute with his father, Louis, also a poet,
about his support for the Vietnam War, he checks himself in full
rhetorical flight, while still managing to stick to his guns.
"This is a disgusting letter to write you. At least it's better than
the napalm you're paying for and approving and justifying to your
son. Oughta be ashamed of yourself at your age. But this tone of
letter leaves no room for someplace to agree in. Forgive me."
He was large; he contained multitudes.
Paul Wilner is a Bay Area writer and critic. E-mail him at